Planet of the Knob-heads: why do lit-ah-rary types look down on SF?

So what is it about science fiction that causes “literary” types to look down upon it? Like any genre, SF has its bad and good. No scratch that, like any writing, there is both bad and good. I’ve read plenty of unreadable “literary” fiction. But SF seems to get more derision than other forms of genre writing, perhaps unfairly. Many important books are SF.

Fantastic Adventures cover - half-naked woman on giant snakeYet, try to get Margaret Atwood to admit she writes it; yes, she writes SF (though anti-technological, like Michael Crichton) and some of it’s pretty good: The Handmaid’s Tale, for example. But no, she won’t cop to it. And I understand, because then she’d be lumping herself in with …. the pulps.

I’m not trying to say that there wasn’t any merit to them, but the covers … whoa, Betty … the covers … the covers … [sound of Mark pouring water over his massive, shaved scull, coursing down the rolls of fat on his neck]

What I love about the covers is the uninhibited yearning, for example, this scantily clad woman riding a giant snake. Yes, sometimes a giant snake is just a giant snake, but in this case, a Freudian interpretation is in order.

The real variation seems to be in HOW the women are scantily clad. Fantastic Adventures seems to go for the low-cut strapless dress, while Science Fiction clearly starts there and quickly jumps to the bikini-skirt combo. Of course, neither of them had anything on Spicy Adventure Stories (though these are not really science fiction), and none of these can hold a candle to Saucy Movie. (My guess is they had some kind of requirement that the artists show at least one nipple, or make up for the lack of nipple some other way. (For example, she’s being held by a fireman, or Satan, or even worse, a pirate! Arrrr!!))

Here are a few of my favourites:

Science Fiction Quarterly

pulp fiction cover - Science Fiction QuartlerlyIf you’re not showing some nipple, then the woman/victim/love interest could be in the arms of a psychotic space-dude! This guy has some kind of transparent helmet on, but it sure isn’t because he has to haul away his woman-prize through the vacuum of space. His nipples are exposed. I’m not sure if this picture is as villainous as it seems: if her arms were bound, I’m sure they would be dangling like her legs. As it stands, they disappear behind his buttocks. I’ll let you draw whatever inference you may.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction - pulp magazine cover of robot abducting scantily clad womanHoly crap that chick is flexible! Her back is arched enough that she can see that her toe is almost dragging on the ground. Good thing she wasn’t wearing her tight jeans that morning. Good thing she’s hardly wearing anything at all. She’s probably thinking, “why couldn’t I get kidnapped by something good, like a buff sexy fireman or a nice-smelling pirate, for God’s sake. Instead, I’ve been abducted by some chicken-legged robot with a knob-head and these six bizarre little arms that look like baby’s arms with apples instead of fists. Hey, wait a minute ….”

Fantastic Adventures

fantastic adventures - pulp cover magazine of robot with horrified womanOkay, this is getting too easy. A suspiciously shaped robot threatens a woman in a skin-tight flesh-toned dress. (And a little fashion tip for all you girls who plan on being accosted by perverted automatons on the cover of a pulp magazine — pink dress and red hair — no. Go for something white and wispy, which will be more alluring and let your hair pop.)

I will say this for her, unlike the other women, she looks genuinely horrified. Of course, you would be too if you had a six-foot condom-shaped robot shaking its business at you.

Future

princess leia - future magazine coverOne look at this and I thought, “It’s Princess Leia! George Lucas had a subscription to Future!”

Seriously, that is the Proto-Princess Leia bronze boob beguiler.

No doubt this suppurated in George’s imagination for a couple of decades until he got a chance to unleash it (pun intended) in Return of the Jedi. Thus, George paid it forward, and fucked up at least two generations of impressionable young gentlemen with this evil, suggestive image.

Damn you Future magazine, and your series of salacious covers!

princess leia cover 2 - future magazine

Now to counteract all that sexist cheese, here’s a selection of ground-breaking SF, culled from Time’s “top 100 books” and the BBC’s top 100:

  • Brave New World
  • 1984
  • Animal Farm
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Naked Lunch
  • Dune
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Stand
  • The Clan Of The Cave Bear
  • Neuromancer
  • Watchmen
  • Snow Crash.

Still not sure what SF is? This handy chart may help. (Thanks to Robert Runte for pointing me towards making it.)

So, your turn — what SF book rocked your world?

Alltop thinks SF stands for San Francisco. Originally published, October 2009.

14 thoughts on “Planet of the Knob-heads: why do lit-ah-rary types look down on SF?

  1. Actually, I didn’t just point towards the genre chart — I created it. Thanks for the tip of the hat!

    I recall my older brother talking about how embarrassing it was to buy SF pulps — his description of taking these covers to the cashier sounds a lot like my experience trying to buy my first porn mag when I was still underage. Reading these pulps on the bus, complete strangers would often comment to him about reading such trash. In the early pulp era, it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan. It really wasn’t until the 1960s when Star Trek made 1950s style sf familiar to a general audience that SF started to crawl out of ‘couple of steps below romance novels’ image. Not coincidentally, this was the same period when the books started to go for a more abstract cover style — artists like Richard Powers.

    In truth, some of the pulp writing was pretty bad. I often wish that I was alive and writing in that period. It looks so easy to get published in those days — I know that I write better than at least half of what appeared in the early Ace Doubles, for example, and they paid the same 3-6 cents a word back then that a lot of the publishers still pay today — 6 cents a word was a living wage in 1940; not so much today.

    On the other hand, I still get nostalgic for those old covers sometimes. It’s very tempting to offer to republish Handmaid’s Tale with a pulp-style bondage cover and see if Atwood doesn’t suddenly attract a whole new audience!

  2. Neuromancer really triggered my love for William Gibson’s stuff. I love that dark an’ gritty street-rat scifi.

    Would HP Lovecraft fit in a sci-fi definition? I mean, I know it’s technically horror, but man that is some way-out and well written material. I’ve read everything that guy ever wrote, including a collection of his personal correspondences someone published.

    My next author “project” will be Philip K Dick: I think he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? aka Blade Runner, and A Scanner Darkly aka Minority Report.

  3. It really is shocking to think the word rate hasn’t changed in 70+ years. I suppose I’d better not give up my day job, eh?

    Joe, I do not know what BEMS is — can you give me a clue? Does it have something to do with Peter’s Planet of the Knob-heads?

    LOBO — I love Gibson’s work too, and of the most recent stuff, I’d recommend All Tomorrow’s Parties and Pattern Recognition. And I would be a poor fanboy if I didn’t rise to the bait: A Scanner Darkly is a different story from Minority Report. A bigger geek than me will have to come up with the short story that one is based on. (Or I suppose it is easily Googled.) That said, I enjoyed both movie versions, and I was frankly impressed they could make a movie out of A Scanner Darkly.

  4. Yup, you are correct -Minority and Scanner are both by PKD, but different stories. The guy must’ve been off the charts as far as a sci-fi writer: with Do Androids, that’s three big stories I didn’t know had anything in common.

    I got All Tomorrow’s Parties 1st edition, hardcover and autographed by WG, but I kinda fell off reading his stuff around when Idoru was released. But based on your recommendation, it looks like I’m gonna have to break down and smudge ATP up w/some fingerprints!

  5. BEMS is an acronym for that other favourite of pulp covers everywhere, the Bug Eyed Monster.
    They too have been known to carry off underdressed young females, but we don’t want to ask why.

  6. There’s a funny thing about literature that most people don’t know. If you have a look in your local bookstore’s literature section, you’ll find that the books have only one thing in common: format. They’re all trade paperbacks. That is, in fact, the primary criteria for being considered “literature”.

    In order to have a GUARANTEED spot in the lit section, a book has to be either depressing, unpleasantly weird, or written by someone who’s dead.

  7. Having been actively try to get even an agent to promote my SF novel, I too am looking back at the heyday of pulps here and feeling wistful… Now if only I had that time machine to take me back to the 50, I could be a pioneer for the genre!

    (Where IS that Dr. Who when I need him?) :)

  8. Maybe the talent required to write good sci-fi is somehow opposed to the talent required to write great prose. I didn’t realize it till now, but I can’t think of many examples where the two combine to create good literary sci-fi.

    Jonathan Lethem’s “Girl In Landscape” is a very good example (and probably his “Amnesia Moon” if the definition of sc-fi isn’t too anal), and Atwood’s “Orxy and Crake” is fitting, but for a genre so ripe for allegory and extended metaphor, it’s a shame the two aspects don’t jive with each other more often.

    I’d like to hear of some more successful examples if anyone has any…

  9. Jenn — good luck with your search; I have pretty much given up, though I still have a couple of queries out there. I believe agents are only taking on projects they KNOW they can sell easily right now. The market is tough.

    Chayce — It probably depends upon how you define SF. (SciFi definitely skews pulpish in my mind.) Kurt Vonnegut would be on my shortlist, though he objected to the SF classification early in his career, no doubt because he knew what that would mean in terms of being taken seriously. The book you recently recommended to me would qualify, I think: Super Sad True Love Story.

    But yes, I’d be interested in seeing an expanded list of literary/sf too.

  10. Ten lashes with a wet tentacle for both Mark and Joe for not knowing what a BEM was. Tsk tsk, boys, tsk tsk. You can download Berkeley Livingston’s “Death of a B.E.M” for a quick free lesson, though. http://www.manybooks.net/titles/berkeleyl3272632726.html ;)

    One book that affected me quite profoundly was George Turner’s The Sea and Summer. It was one of the first SF future dystopias that made me think, “yeah, things could go that way.”

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